Elliott Abrams, darling of the neoconservative right, was back in the news earlier this year when President Donald Trump considered him for deputy secretary of state, the second most important job in the State Department. He had the right background: Abrams held high-ranking State Department positions in the Reagan administration, and he was a key national security adviser during both of President George W. Bush’s terms. Trump ultimately nixed the appointment after learning of Abrams’s outspoken criticisms of him during the presidential campaign. The self-described “gladiator” in the fight for freedom continues to speak his mind and just published his latest book, Realism and Democracy. Moment recently spoke with Abrams about the role of human rights and democracy in American foreign policy, his views on presidential pardons (Abrams himself received one on Christmas Eve of 1992 for convictions stemming from the Iran-Contra affair) and the advice he would give Donald Trump.
Is American-style democracy the best form of government for all countries?
I would take out the “American-style,” but yes, democracy is the best form of government. Democracy teaches that regardless of the history and culture of the people, there is a pattern of fundamental rights; we see this in the United Nations’ Universal Declarations of Human Rights and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. There is a universal need for independent courts of justice, free elections, constitutional protections of minorities, freedom of speech and the press and free trade unions. These are the basic elements of a democracy and, ultimately, I believe that is the best form of government for all societies.
What are the most important lessons from the past 50 years of American foreign policy in the Middle East?
One, the Israelis and Palestinians are not an inch away from an agreement; there isn’t going to be a comprehensive final status agreement that establishes an independent, sovereign, viable democratic Palestinian state. The fundamental problem is the continuing Palestinian refusal to accept the permanent and legitimate existence of a Jewish state in Israel. Every president tries to make peace between the Palestinians and Israelis and every president fails. Second, repression is not a force for stability. The repressive Arab regimes that we have sometimes supported actually are not stable; they’re just frozen. Beneath the ice, movements such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS—and more generally Islamist extremism—are growing. Third, if we look at Iraq, it is not enough to achieve a military victory if you have no viable plan for helping to put a country back together again after you have occupied it.
How would you evaluate Trump’s foreign policy to date?
The degree to which Trump’s foreign policy deviates from standard American foreign policy has been greatly exaggerated. He has a foreign policy team of very responsible people who could be serving in any Republican administration, and many of their policies are not that different from what we saw under Bush and Obama. There is very strong support for the alliances with Israel and Jordan and a strong opposition to Iran’s nuclear program and its aggressions in the region. The main difference from previous Republican administrations that I object to is, thus far, there has not been any activism on the human rights and democracy front.
What grade would you give Trump’s foreign policy so far?
B minus. Much of what he’s done has been okay, but many of our allies are confused by things he has said and by the gap between what the U.S. says and what we actually do. They don’t believe they currently understand and can rely on American foreign policy.
If you were having coffee with Trump today, what advice would you give him?
In terms of foreign policy, I would suggest to him that with Iran, Russia and China, he’s missing the ideological component; he should be talking about freedom more. Finally, while it’s in the great tradition of American presidents to seek comprehensive peace between Israel and Palestinians, I would tell him he’s not going to get it. It would be better to seek pragmatic ways of improving Israeli-Palestinian relations and the lives of Palestinians.
How would you weigh in on the recent debate about presidential pardons, including that of Joe Arpaio?
I believe in the pardon power. It is very important, and I wish presidents used it more often. There are many people behind bars in the United States, and others in pending cases, who deserve a pardon or commutation. However, the pardon power can be abused. The worst example of this in recent history is those final day pardons by Bill Clinton, which included a bunch of Puerto Rican terrorists, Clinton’s own brother, and the financier Marc Rich. Any Democrat who wants to criticize President Trump on his recent pardon has to begin this conversation by denouncing these pardons. Personally, I was against the Arpaio pardon and thought it was a mistake. President Trump should have let the judicial process play out, rather than interfering in it. It sends an unfortunate message that defying court orders is an acceptable form of behavior.